Vestal Virgin

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2nd-century AD Roman statue of a Virgo Vestalis Maxima (National Roman Museum
)

In ancient Rome, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Latin: Vestālēs, singular Vestālis [wɛsˈtaːlɪs]) were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The college of the Vestals was regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. These individuals cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children and took a 30-year vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were forbidden to the colleges of male priests.[1]

In 382 AD, the Christian emperor Gratian confiscated the public revenues assigned to the cult of Vesta in Rome, and the Vestals vanished from historical record soon after.

History

The Roman imperial period authors Livy, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius attribute the creation of the Vestals as a state-supported priestesshood to King Numa Pompilius, who reigned circa 717–673 BC. According to Livy, writing in the Augustan age, Numa introduced the Vestals and assigned them salaries from the public treasury. Livy also says that the priestesshood of Vesta had its origins at Alba Longa.[2] The 2nd-century AD antiquarian Aulus Gellius writes that the first Vestal taken from her parents was led away in hand by Numa. Also writing in the 2nd century, Plutarch attributes the founding of the Temple of Vesta to Numa, who appointed at first two priestesses; Servius Tullius increased the number to four.[3] Ambrose alludes to a seventh in late antiquity.[4] Numa also appointed the pontifex maximus to watch over the Vestals.

The first Vestals, according to the 1st-century BC author Varro, were named Gegania,[5] Veneneia,[6] Canuleia,[7] and Tarpeia.[8] Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, was portrayed as traitorous in legend.

The Vestals became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, the Vestals interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon.[9] Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. They were held in awe, and attributed certain magical powers. Pliny the Elder, for example, in Book 28 of his Natural History discussing the efficacy of magic, chooses not to refute, but rather tacitly accept as truth:[10]

At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.

The 4th-century AD urban prefect Symmachus, who sought to maintain traditional Roman religion during the rise of Christianity, wrote:

The laws of our ancestors provided for the Vestal virgins and the ministers of the gods a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This gift was preserved inviolate till the time of the degenerate moneychangers, who diverted the maintenance of sacred chastity into a fund for the payment of base porters. A public famine ensued on this act, and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces ... it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.[11]

It is not known exactly when the Vestals were dissolved, but it must have happened not long after the emperor Gratian confiscated their revenues in 382 AD.[12] The last epigraphically attested Vestal is Coelia Concordia, a Virgo Vestalis Maxima who in 385 AD erected a statue to the deceased pontiff Vettius Agorius Praetextatus.[13] The latest mention of a Vestal is by the pagan historian Zosimos, who relates that, during a visit of Theodosius I to Rome in 394 AD, the emperor's niece Serena insulted an aged Vestal, said to be the last of her kind.[14] Conti writes that it is not clear from Zosimos's narrative if the cult of Vesta was still functioning (and thus maintained by that single Vestal) at that point,[15] but Cameron is skeptical of the entire tale, noting that Theodosius did not actually visit Rome in 394.[16]

Vestalis Maxima

The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, "greatest of the Vestals") oversaw the efforts of the Vestals, and was present in the College of Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome's high priestesses. Although the Flaminica Dialis and the regina sacrorum each held unique responsibility for certain religious rites, each came into her office as the spouse of another appointed priest, whereas the vestals all held office independently.

Relief of the Vestal Virgins at a banquet, found in 1935 near Rome's Via del Corso (Museum of the Ara Pacis
)

Number of Vestals

According to Plutarch, there were only two Vestal Virgins when Numa began the College of the Vestals. This number later increased to four, and then to six.[17] It has been suggested by some authorities that a seventh was added later, but this is doubtful.[18]

Terms of service

The Vestals were committed to the priestesshood before puberty (when 6–10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.[19] These 30 years were divided in turn into three decade-long periods during which Vestals were respectively students, servants, and teachers.

After her 30-year term of service, each Vestal retired and was replaced by a new inductee. Once retired, a former Vestal was given a pension and allowed to marry.

House of the Vestals and Temple of Vesta
from the Palatine

Selection

To obtain entry into the order, a girl had to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and be a daughter of a free-born resident of Rome. From at least the mid-Republican era, the pontifex maximus chose Vestals between their sixth and tenth year, by lot from a group of twenty high-born candidates at a gathering of their families and other Roman citizens. Originally, the girl had to be of patrician birth, but membership was opened to plebeians as it became difficult to find patricians willing to commit their daughters to 30 years as a Vestal, and then ultimately even from the daughters of freedmen for the same reason.[21][22] The earlier, stricter selection rules were determined by the Papian Law of the 3rd century BC.[23]

The choosing ceremony was known as a captio (capture). Once a girl was chosen to be a Vestal, the pontifex pointed to her and led her away from her parents with the words, "I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal 'on the best terms' " (thus, with all the entitlements of a Vestal). As soon as she entered the atrium of Vesta's temple, she was under the goddess' service and protection.[24]

To replace a Vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief Vestal for the selection of the most virtuous. Unlike normal inductees, these candidates did not have to be prepubescents, nor even virgins (they could be young widows or even divorcees, though that was frowned upon and thought unlucky), though they were rarely older than the deceased Vestal they were replacing. Tacitus recounts how Gaius Fonteius Agrippa and Domitius Pollio offered their daughters as Vestal candidates in 19 AD to fill such a vacant position. Equally matched, Pollio's daughter was chosen only because Agrippa had been recently divorced. The pontifex maximus (Tiberius) "consoled" the failed candidate with a dowry of 1 million sesterces.[25]

Duties

The most prominent feature of the ruins that were once the Temple of Vesta
is the hearth (seen here in the foreground).

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.[26] By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The Vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. In addition, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

Privileges

The dignities accorded to the Vestals were significant.[27] In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the College of Vestal Virgins was required for numerous public ceremonies and wherever they went, were transported in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way. Vestals had a reserved place of honour at public games and performances, and could give evidence without first taking the customary oath, their word being trusted without question.

Vestals were entrusted with important wills and state documents, such as public treaties, on account of their incorruptible character. Their personhood was sacrosanct, and Vestals were given escorts to protect them from assault; anyone found to have injured a Vestal would suffer the death penalty.

Vestals also had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them - if a person sentenced to death saw a Vestal on their way to their execution, they were automatically pardoned.

Vestals participated in the annual throwing of ritual straw figures called Argei into the Tiber on May 15.[28][29]

Punishments

Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini
Statue of Flavia Publicia in the House of the Vestals
In the Temple of Vesta by Constantin Hölscher [de], 1902 (Villa Grisebach [de
])

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out was a serious dereliction of duty. It suggested that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city. Vestals guilty of this offence were punished by a scourging or beating, which was carried out "in the dark and through a curtain to preserve their modesty".[30]

The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium, they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestum and an act of treason.[31] The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was immurement, to be buried alive.[32] They would be buried in the Campus Sceleratus ("Evil Field") in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate supplied with a few days of food and water. Ancient tradition required that an unchaste Vestal be buried alive within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law that no person might be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the Vestal would not technically be buried in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". The actual manner of the procession to Campus Sceleratus has been described like this:

When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged, was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter, and borne through the forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate. There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and a table with a little food. The pontifex maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed.[33]

Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare.[34] In 483 BC, following a series of portents, and advice from the soothsayers that the religious ceremonies were not being duly attended to, the vestal virgin Oppia was found guilty of a breach of chastity and punished.[35] The Vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

O Vesta, if I have always brought pure hands to your secret services, make it so now that with this sieve I shall be able to draw water from the Tiber and bring it to Your temple.[36]

Because a Vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the Vestal had acted wrongly or that the Vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body. While the Order of the Vestals was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity and these trials all took place at times of political crisis for the Roman state. It has been suggested[31] that Vestals were used as scapegoats[a] in times of great crisis.

Pliny the Younger was convinced that Cornelia, who as Virgo Maxima was buried alive at the orders of emperor Domitian, was innocent of the charges of unchastity, and he describes how she sought to keep her dignity intact when she descended into the chamber:[38]

... when she was let down into the subterranean chamber, and her robe had caught in descending, she turned round and gathered it up. And when the executioner offered her his hand, she shrank from it, and turned away with disgust; spurning the foul contact from her person, chaste, pure, and holy: And with all the deportment of modest grace, she scrupulously endeavoured to perish with propriety and decorum.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims that the earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and "put to death" for breaking their vows of celibacy, and that their offspring were to be thrown into the river.[39] According to Livy, Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin, and when she gave birth to the twins, it is stated that she was merely loaded down with chains and cast into prison, her babies put into the river.[40] Dionysius also relates the belief that live burial was instituted by the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus, and inflicted this punishment on the priestess Pinaria.[41] The 11th century Byzantine historian George Kedrenos is the only extant source for the claim that prior to Priscus, the Roman King Numa Pompilius had instituted death by stoning for unchaste Vestal Virgins, and that it was Priscus who changed the punishment into that of live burial.[42] But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration as was done to Urbinia in 471 BC.[43]

Suspicions first arose against Minucia through an improper love of dress and the evidence of a slave. She was found guilty of unchastity and buried alive.

A reconstruction of the House of the Vestals by Christian Hülsen
(1905)